Season preview: Barca, Real lead way in La Liga

Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. (AP)

The 83rd La Liga season begins on Aug. 17 with Real Sociedad taking on Getafe in the first official match of the campaign. Title chasers Real Madrid and Barcelona begin their journey the following day versus Levante and Real Betis respectively.

Here is an in-depth look at all clubs involved.

Title chasers

Real Madrid: Welcome Carlo Ancelotti, you’re the next contestant in the Los Blancos managerial merry-go-round. The Italian becomes Real’s 11th bench boss in a decade, which goes to show if the league title is not won it’s lights out and on to the next one. Surprisingly, the club sold $86 million worth of players in the off-season (Gonzalo Higuain, Raul Abiol, Jose Callejon, Ricardo Carvalho), and spent $97 million on budding talents Asier Illarramendi, Isco, Casimero and Daniel Carvajal. However, that number will swell should Real be successful in their $133 million bid for Gareth Bale.

The youth academy has always been a black hole for the club and a laughingstock compared to the conveyor belt of talent being produced at Barcelona’s esteemed La Masia. However, two promising youngsters have made the jump this season to the senior team in Alvaro Morata and Jese Rodriguez. Both made quite an impression with the under-21 and under-20 Spanish national teams over the summer. Morata was crowned top scorer at the U-21 European Championships, and Jese won the Bronze Shoe at the U-20 World Cup. The perfect mix of youth and experience, with an overall balance and great depth, has Real poised to recapture the league title.

Barcelona: All the talk over the off-season has centred around the Neymar-Messi partnership. Can they play together? We will all soon find out. The Brazilian will first have to adapt to the famed Blaugrana system, though it has changed slightly with the appointment of Gerardo Martino as manager. Martino guided former club Newell’s Old Boys to Argentina’s domestic title last season, and the semifinals of the Copa Libertadores. The challenge of defending the La Liga title with Barcelona is a whole different animal, as the stress and pressure is on a whole other level.

The biggest concern ahead of the campaign is the failure to strengthen their most obvious weakness at centre back. Gerard Piqué and Carles Puyol have seen better days, with only Javier Mascherano and the inexperienced Marc Barta as cover. Key targets continue to remain elusive (David Luiz and Daniel Agger), and the clock is ticking. The U-turn by goalkeeper Victor Valdes to stay on for another season and see out his contract was definitely helpful, saving the club from spending on a replacement. But without added cover, Valdes will be under the same pressure which saw him pick the ball out of his net 41 times last season. If Barcelona fails to defend their crown, it will be due to their defensive deficiencies. Forget about Neymar and Messi – the title will be won or lost on the opposite end of the pitch.

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European places

Athletic Bilbao: Former Athletic player and manager Ernesto Valverde has taken over from Marcelo Bielsa at San Mames. In the last five seasons, Athletic have twice finished Copa del Rey runners-up and Europa League finalists. Similar to the beginning of the previous campaign with Javi Martinez, Athletic watched one of their key contributors depart for greener pastures, as Fernando Llorente made the switch to Juventus. However, the return on Martinez was a sizeable one ($53 million), while Llorente’s contract was allowed to expire and nothing was gained. The same goes with Fernando Amorebieta, who also skipped town on a free, with Fulham reaping the benefits. Valverde acted quickly to plug the holes, spending a combined $16 million on Benat (Real Betis) and Kike Sola (Osasuna), adding to an exquisite youthful core of Aritz Aduriz (14 goals), Markel Susaeta (seven goals) and Oscar de Marcos (six goals). After Athletic posted the fourth-worst defensive record in the league last season, a place in Europe will only be achieved if los Leones can manage to keep the ball out of their net.

Atletico Madrid: Diego Simeone has won three titles (two Spanish Super Cups and the Europa League) since being unveiled as manager at the end of 2011, and there is no reason why his penchant for collecting silverware should come to an end this season. In six years, Atletico has amassed a small fortune from the sales of star strikers Fernando Torres, Sergio Aguero and Radamel Falcao, totalling a staggering $170 million. Judging by results, the funds received have been reinvested properly. The acquisition of David Villa from Barcelona for a bargain fee of under $5 million will soften the blow of Falcao’s departure. If Diego Costa stays put, with Liverpool rumoured to be in the hunt, and the addition of Leo Baptistao from Rayo Vallecano, Atleti supporters can look forward to another enjoyable campaign. Remember, Los Rojiblancos had the best defensive record in the league last season, with only 31 goals conceded.

Sevilla: When you sell players of quality such as Jesus Navas and Alvaro Negredo, it’s tough to focus on the positives and be optimistic about the season ahead. Both were integral for Sevilla last season, as Negredo alone scored 25 of the club’s 58 goals, and Navas was influential down the wing. Sevilla finished ninth, the same spot as the year before, so it’s safe to assume complacency has set in, and a fresh start may be a good thing. Including Gary Medel, the club collected $77 million in summer sales, and accurately addressed the issues within the first team by spending a fraction of the incoming funds. Kevin Gamiero cost $10 million, and Marko Marin was brought in on loan. Problem solved, at least on paper. Manager Unai Emery managed 28 points in 19 games, having arrived in mid-January, ending with 50 points overall points. This could be the year Sevilla return to the top six.

Valencia: A disappointing fifth place finish last season saw los Che miss out on a lucrative Champions League spot for the first time four years, and was ultimately the reason manager Ernesto Valverde jumped ship. Top scorer Roberto Soldado (24 goals) was sold to Tottenham for $40 million. However, fear not, as Portuguese international Helder Postiga was brought as a replacement. Should anyone chuckle, a glance at his stat sheet will show a decent consistency rate in front of goal. But Tino Costa won’t be around to supply the attack, having left for Spartak Moscow. The trio of Jonas, Ever Banega and Sergio Canales are impressive commodities who are capable of shouldering the load. Valencia will always be in the hunt for the top four, and the consolation title of third place, which is the target for every other club, aside from Real Madrid and Barcelona.

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The in-betweeners

Espanyol: Rooted at the bottom of the table last season, Espanyol pulled the trigger and sacked Mauricio Pochettino, who has since become Southampton manager. Javier Aguirre was handed the reins and left with the responsibility of avoiding relegation, which was accomplished. Aguirre secured 35 points from the remaining 23 games left on the schedule to finish well clear of the drop (14th). Espanyol have historically languished in mid-table and flirted with relegation. It won’t be any different this year. The $4 million sale of Jordi Amat to Swansea City was good business, although the defensive prospect proved to be quality during his season-long loan with Rayo Vallecano last season. Aguirre also lost top scorer Joan Verdu (12 goals) on a free transfer to Real Betis, but can look to Pizzi — on loan from Benfica –to help shoulder the load up front.

Getafe: Since gaining promotion in 2004, this tiny club from the outskirts of Madrid has managed to retain its topflight status for nine consecutive seasons. However, no big money signings will ever be coming in to provide the opportunity of something more, and the inevitable sales of their best performers is what allows the club to balance the books. The latest departure is Abdelaziz Barrada, with the Moroccan international being sold to UAE side Al Jazira for $13 million. Other casualties include Miguel Torres and Mane. However, the $8 million permanent acquisition of Pedro Leon from Real Madrid was a positive step, having been initially sold for $13 million three years earlier. Leon hopes to resurrect a career that stalled after his big money move to the Bernabeu.

Levante: Levante’s domestic form was affected by European commitments last season and a swift return to the bottom-half of the table was the end result (11th). On a positive note, the club did manage to over-achieve in the Europa League, bowing in the Round of 16. However, a terrible run of form to end the year — one win in their last 12 — and a reported dressing room bust-up between players proved Juan Ignacio Martinez had lost control of the situation, and his contract was not renewed. Joaquin Caparros was appointed new manager this summer, but he must find a way to make do without the services of several pivotal contributors: goalkeeper Gustavo Munua, defenders Sergio Ballesteros and Juanfran, winger Juanlu, and midfielders Michel and Jose Barkero.

Osasuna: Last season’s survival wasn’t based on heroics or good performances on their part, but the inefficiency of the clubs around them. The biggest problem was the lack of goals produced (33 in 38 games), good enough for worst in the league and the defining reason why the team finished three points above the drop (16th). Enrique ‘Kike’ Sola led the team with nine goals, and the next closest was a three-way tie of three goals apiece. Unfortunately, Osasuna will always be a selling club, which meant cashing in on Sola ($4.7 million from Athletic Bilbao). Midfielder Miguel De la Cuevas was purchased from Sporting Gijon, though, no one was added to compensate for the void left by Sola.

Rayo Vallecano: Forever in the shadows of Real and Atletico, the Franjirrojos are barely a blip on the radar in Madrid. However, last season’s unexpected over-achievement (eighth) has set up a tough act to follow in the club’s third successive season in the Primera. It was the club’s best finish in a topflight campaign in 14 attempts. Under the watchful eye of manager Paco Jemez, the side produced a couple of big away victories at the Mestalla (Valencia) and San Mames (Athletic Bilbao), as well as beating Atletico Madrid, one of nine home wins last year. The stand-out performer was 31-year-old forward Piti, who had 18 goals. Unfortunately, the attacking midfielder departed for Granada on a free transfer. Nery Castillo was brought in from Mexican side Pachuca in the hopes of plugging the hole.

Real Betis: Ruben Castro and Jorge Molina combined to score 31 of the team’s 57 goals last season, and manager Pepe Mel is hopeful that both can pick up where they left off. One player that won’t be back is midfielder Benat, who was sold to former club Athletic Bilbao for $9.4 million, having been initially released back in 2009. The Spaniard was a key contributor for Betis throughout his time in Andalusia, and will be sorely missed. Another top-half finish is in sight, should the club not be hit with a rash of injuries. They strengthened accordingly over the off-season, adding depth with the signings of Xavi Torres, Juanfran and Verdu to name a few.

Real Sociedad: No one would have predicted a remarkable top four finish and European qualification two seasons following promotion. Sociedad achieved the unthinkable last season on a modest and humble budget. Unfortunately, the man who guided the club to their best showing in a decade has jumped ship, as Philippe Montanier joined French outfit Rennes. His assistant and former youth team coach Jagoba Arassate has been handed the reins. Having sanctioned the sale of highly coveted holding midfielder Asier Illarramendi to Real Madrid for $33 million, a mass exodus was on the horizon. Thankfully, it was avoided and the club was able on hang on to their three top scorers (Carlos Vela, Antoine Griezmann and Imanol Agirretxe), who combined to score 37 of Sociedad’s 70 goals last term, good enough for the third-best offence in the league. The only signing of significance was Swiss striker Haris Seferovic from Fiorentina.

Villarreal: The Yellow Submarine spent 12 consecutive seasons in the Primera before suffering a humiliating relegation in 2012. As expected, a mass player exodus followed relegation, most notably Diego Lopez, Nilmar, Borja Valero, and the club was forced to start with a blank canvas. After one season in the second-tier, Villarreal are back where they belong, and have put together a group capable of avoiding a relegation battle. The club spent double the amount of funds to bring in talent, with only Christian Zapata being sold to AC Milan for $8 million, after spending last year on loan at the Rossoneri. Tomas Pina and Giovani dos Santos were purchased from relegated Mallorca for $14.6 million, but the most impactful move was the season-long loan of Atletico Madrid keeper Sergio Asenjo.

Malaga: Gone are the days of los Boquerones flexing their new found financial muscle, as the club’s Qatari owners have considerably scaled back their investment. A paltry $5 million was spent on new recruits this off-season for incoming manager Bernd Schuster, as he attempts to fill the seat vacated by Manuel Pellegrini. It’s an almost impossible task, judging by the players who have been sold and allowed to leave on a free. On top of the club’s European earnings, another $49 million was pocketed from the sales of Isco (Real Madrid), Joaquin (Fiorentina) and Jeremy Toulalan (AS Monaco). Other notable departures include Martin Demichelis (Atletico Madrid), Javier Saviola (Olympiacos) and Julio Baptista (Cruzeiro). Only Roque Santa Cruz remains from last year’s top five scorers, having officially made the loan move from Manchester City permanent.

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Relegation battle

Almeria: After spending the last two seasons in the Segunda Division, a convincing two-legged playoff victory over Girona sealed promotion to the Primera. Before relegation in 2011, the Andalusian club managed to sustain its topflight status for four years, and even managed a Copa Del Rey semifinal appearance. Reserve team coach and former player Francisco has become the youngest manager in the topflight, as Almeria promoted from within. Minimal finances are available, with loan deals and free transfers the only available methods to strengthen the squad. Keep an eye out for Liverpool’s 19-year-old attacking midfielder Suso, and Barcelona forward Rodri. Both prospects will receive crucial first-team minutes that will further their development. Sadly, that won’t be enough to spare Almeria from anything other than a season-long battle for survival. The departure of Brazilian striker Charles has made things worse, as his 27 goals were tops in the Segunda last season.

Elche: The reining Segunda division champions make the leap to the Primera this season, having spent about a quarter of a century on the outside looking in. Fran Escriba managed to guide the small side to the second-tier title in his first season at the helm, though, keeping them in Spain’s top division will be extremely difficult and prove ultimately beyond his reach. Former Spanish internationals Alberto Botia and Manu del Moral have been brought in on loan from Sevilla, and the free transfer of goalkeeper Tono from Granada has also helped give the squad much needed reinforcements. Last season’s top-scorer Coro (12 goals) must prove he can do the job at the top level, though, even a remarkable year won’t be enough to save Elche from their inevitable fate.

Celta Vigo: What a blow it would have been had newly appointed manager Luis Enrique quit less than two months after taking the job. The former Barcelona player and reserve team coach was rumoured to be in contention for the position vacated by Tito Vilanova, though, thankfully for Os Celticos nothing came of it. Having already sanctioned the $10 million sale of fan favourite and top-scorer Iago Aspas to Liverpool, the prospect of avoiding the drop for a second season was looking incredibly bleak and would have been made worse if Enrique skipped town as well. Enrique has recruited the services of highly touted attacking midfielder Rafinha on loan from his former club, with the Brazilian keen on receiving first-team football. The addition of Nolito via the same route from Benfica, and the $1.2 million purchase of Charles from Almeria should be beneficial to the cause.

Granada: When Udinese owner Giampaolo Pozzo entered into a partnership agreement to buy the cash-strapped Andalusian side, it came with the added benefit of fielding youth and reserve team players from Udine and becoming a farm system of sorts for their new Italian brothers. It’s a refreshing change to the recent normality of big-money football. Granada has managed to survive successive seasons in the Primera through this arrangement, and have almost a half-dozen Udinese players on their books for the upcoming campaign. It’s not an iron-clad method to retain their topflight status, as the club has finished dangerously close to relegation since making the step up in 2011. Life without midfielder Gabriel Torje will be tough to manage, with the Romanian returning to parent club Udinese after his loan deal expired.

Real Valladolid: The last decade has seen the club bounce between the Segunda and Primera, and unable to establish a similar foothold that produced only one season outside the top division between 1980-2004. Although, a safety buffer of seven points was achieved last season, the dreaded drop will be much tougher to avoid in the new campaign. Juan Ignacio Martinez takes over managerial duties from the outgoing Miroslav Dukic, and with virtually no money to spend in the transfer market, the odds of escaping relegation are minimal at best. One positive was the ability to hang on to top-scorer Oscar Gonzalez (12 goals).

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